John’s Gospel is the most reflective and overtly theological of all the Gospels. It begins with a beautiful poem on the Word made flesh and continues to interweave stories about Jesus with deep theological reflections on what he means. The stories about Jesus often focus around his miracles (which John’s Gospel calls 'signs') and from there spill onwards into discussions or discourses about the nature of Jesus and what he had come to do. Various themes run through this Gospel and are much more apparent than in other Gospels – themes like good versus evil, light versus darkness, Jesus sent by God from heaven to earth – and underpinning everything else, love.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1.1)
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3.16)
31If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8.31–32)
And many more!
There are a couple of tricky things about John.
The Gospel itself identifies its author as 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' (John 21.20–25), but does not go on to say who this disciple was. Christian tradition identifies him as John son of Zebedee, one of the 12 apostles. Other possible identities for the beloved disciple include Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, John Mark, Jesus’ brother James or an unknown disciple of Jesus. No one really knows who the beloved disciple was – the way in which John’s Gospel was written suggests that this was deliberate.
It is also worth noting that the Gospel seems to have evolved. The prologue (1.1–18) and epilogue (chapter 21), as well as various sections in the middle of the Gospel, suggest that the final Gospel emerged over time. Some have suggested that this means it wasn’t written by one person but by a community of people inspired by the ideas of their leader (who was possibly John). Look out for the uneven joins as you read – there are quite a lot of them.
If the author is John the apostle, then he was the brother of James, called by Jesus to follow him early in his ministry. He is often thought to be the beloved disciple of John’s Gospel (see the introduction). If he was, then Jesus handed over care for his mother to him on the cross. Christian tradition states that he took her to live in Ephesus, where he lived to a ripe old age (around 100).
Although some scholars have argued for a very early date for John (around AD 40), the vast majority date it towards the end of the first century (around AD 90) which would allow time for the reflective tone of the Gospel to have developed.
The AD 90s were a time of persecution for the Christian community. This caused them to seek an identity over and against the world in which they lived. You can see hints of this in the Gospel itself.
It’s a Gospel – a story about the life of Jesus with the intended aim of persuading its readers who he was.
As we’ve already noticed, John’s Gospel is a different kind of Gospel – it is much more reflective than the rest, spending time exploring the question of who Jesus really was.
1.1–18 The prologue
1.19–51 The call of the first disciples
2.1–12 The wedding at Cana
2.13–25 Jesus cleanses the temple
3.1–21 Jesus and Nicodemus
3.22–36 Jesus and John the Baptist
4.1–42 Jesus and the Samaritan woman
4.43–54 Healing of the official’s son
5.1–47 Healing of the man at Beth-zatha
6.1–71 Feeding of the 5,000 and discourse about bread
7.1–52 Who is Jesus?
7.53–8.11 The woman caught in adultery
8.12–59 The light of the world
9.1–41 Healing of the man born blind
10.1–42 The Good Shepherd
11.1–57 Jesus, the resurrection and the life
12.1–8 Mary anoints Jesus
12.9–50 Jesus goes to Jerusalem
13.1–17.26 The Last Supper and last discourse
18.1–19.42 Jesus’ arrest, trials and crucifixion
20.1–21.25 The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
Bethsaida, Cana, Nazareth, Capernaum, Beth-zatha, Sea of Tiberias, Bethany, Kidron valley, Galilee, Galilee (sea of), Tiberias (sea of), Jerusalem, Judea, Mount Gerizim, Mount of Olives, Nazareth, Samaria, Zion
Samaritan, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, Annas, Beloved Disciple, Cephas, Elijah, Israel, Judas, Levites, Moses, Pontius Pilate, Samaritans
Rabbi, Rabbouni, Passover, Pharisees, disciples, Gabbatha, Golgotha, Advocate, dispersion, fourth Gospel, Hebrew, High Priest, Passover, priest, scribes, synagogue
Some people feel uncomfortable with the way ‘the Jews’ are referred to in John’s Gospel (in some modern translations this expression is interpreted as 'Jewish leaders'). As you read through it look out not only for the description of ‘the Jews’ but descriptions of individual Jews too (remembering that Jesus was also a Jew). Ask yourself what John meant by the group title ‘the Jews’ in contrast to the individuals you encounter.
John’s is a Gospel of great contrasts – light and darkness, up and down, good and evil etc. Notice these themes as you read and ask why they were so important in John’s Gospel.
People often discuss whether Jesus was more human or more divine in John’s Gospel. See what you think!
John 20.31 says these words ‘are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’. In John’s Gospel, what might persuade you of this?